The stories are different, but the result is the same. Churches often find themselves without a pastor. Sometimes by surprise, sometimes by difficult circumstances, and sometimes it’s just a natural and healthy transition. Whatever the story, the most common part is that the church leaders don’t know what to do.                                                                 

Let’s start with what not to do. Don’t panic. Don’t scramble to get a new pastor as quickly as you can.  Don’t hire the first pastor you meet because of the pressure to fill the position. Take the time you need. It’s far better to wait for the right leader than to hire the wrong one.   

The following guidelines will help you navigate the transition between pastors smoothly.   

• Communicate hope, mission, and security to the congregation.  

It’s important that the key leaders (be that the chairman of the church board or the associate pastor) do not delay in getting to the congregation to communicate three things: First, everything is going to be OK. Communicate a clear sense of encouragement and hope by your confidence in the future! Remind them that God is in control and this situation didn’t catch Him by surprise. The heart behind this should be like a shepherd who cares for his flock and doesn’t want them to be worried. Second, remind the congregation that the Great Commission does not change. Read Matthew 28:19-20 and help keep focus on the main thing. Third, let the congregation know that a plan is being written (keep it short and simple) and will be shared with them soon. Give a timeline such as two weeks, or if you can, a precise date. These things will help provide great security.  

• Help the congregation find closure.   

The churches I work with that ignored this stage often continue to lament the loss of “the best pastor we ever had” for years.  Or, they struggle with anger and distrust for years because the former pastor did not finish well. This is not healthy for any individual, the church or the incoming pastor.                          

In the positive scenarios, create a celebration where you thank the pastor for his ministry and say your good-byes. The pastor should also, lovingly, tell the people in his farewell sermon that he is no longer their pastor, and prays God’s best for the new pastor. This is not an “odd” thing to say. It’s a healthy way to prepare the people for the next pastor. In difficult situations, teach the people about forgiveness, the mission of the church and hope.

The bottom line is that what has happened has happened. It’s done. It’s time to move forward and discover God’s new plan. Don’t get stuck in the past. People’s feelings can’t (and shouldn’t) be shut off like a garden hose. But similar to the passing of a loved one, there is a time for mourning, and there is a time to move forward. This doesn’t happen fast, and it’s not something you check off a list, but it is important to be aware and lead it well.

 • Determine who’s in charge.  

Even for churches within a denominational structure, this can still be problematic. The attitudes and agendas of those with the most influence will play a huge role in the transition. Mutual voluntary submission among the top leaders toward the greater good of the church is vital. The challenge is that the “greater good” is so very subjective.  

The most important question is “How are decisions made?” Answering that question will quickly get you to the real issues. How decisions are made and by who can make or break the church in times of transition.  

This is not a good time to make major decisions, particularly those that involve buildings and significant expenses. It is also wise to refrain from major program or strategy changes. Make only the changes that are necessary. Allow your new pastor to be part of the key decision-making when he arrives. Focus your decision-making on the kinds of things that mature the people spiritually, keep the morale high, prepare the people for the new pastor, and help the church overall become more dependent upon God.   

• Possible options for a temporary pastor. 

The duration of time for interim transitions varies from a minimum of 3 months up to a long transition of 18 months.  

There are basically four options you can choose from:   

1.  An Interim Pastor   

An Interim Pastor is often a great option for most churches, particularly where conflict is low. This position can be filled either by a part time or full time person depending on the size of the church and available resources. The interim pastor takes responsibility for the preaching, some weddings and funerals, teaching, and guidance for the staff and key leadership. He focuses on morale, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor. Attention is given to problem solving, but not necessarily program changing.  

2.  A Transition Specialist   

A Transition specialist is basically a turbo-charged Interim Pastor, and definitely a full time position. A Transition Specialist is a good idea for congregations with scenarios such as long tenure of the previous pastor, (10 years or longer), or significant unresolved conflict. The Transition Specialist serves largely like the official senior pastor would serve.  He also pays particular attention to the church’s history and culture, while helping to clarify mission, vision and values.  He works through any difficult leadership changes, and helps the congregation discover and build on their strengths. The Transition Specialist deals with deeper issues like forgiveness and trust. He focuses on increasing morale, healing, spiritual maturity, and preparing the congregation for the new pastor.   

3.  A “Pulpit Supply” Pastor   

A pulpit supply pastor is appropriate for smaller congregations that basically need someone to do the preaching on Sunday mornings, and cover weddings, funerals and hospital visits. This is a part-time, or even week by week honorarium contract. You can have two or three supply pastors rotating throughout the time of transition.   

4.  Rotating staff or lay leaders    

This option has become increasingly popular in all sizes of churches. It works best where there is little to no conflict and the interim period is likely to be shorter rather than longer. The responsibility usually covers the teaching / preaching only and is not a paid service. The complication goes back to the “Who’s in charge?” question. How do decisions get made? If you choose the route of rotating teachers, be sure to also talk through how decisions are made.  

Important note: It is not wise to consider any of the persons who fill in for the interim as the next senior pastor. There is usually a good reason they were interim in the first place. Remember, don’t give into pressure and don’t sell out to “Hey, he’s doing a good job and everyone seems to like him.” If a staff member is to be considered for the role of senior pastor, it is usually best that he not serve in that role during the interim.  

These thoughts do not comprise a comprehensive plan, but they will help you make a fuller plan and stay on track for a smooth transition.  

In the next Pastor’s Coach article, I’ll talk about how to lead a successful search for a senior pastor.